On Oct. 16, the Lee football team exited the field in Williamstown having lost a heartbreaker to Mount Greylock. The last-minute 18-16 defeat dropped the Wildcats to a 2-4 overall record, and hopes of a playoff berth and a possible Western Massachusetts championship were fading.
But Lee still had an opportunity, especially with the newly implemented Walker System for the Western Mass. tournament, to make the postseason with a 4-4 record due to its difficult strength of schedule.
The Wildcats capitalized on that opportunity, winning their final two regular season games and eventually the Western Mass. championship. They'll play Saturday in the Division VI state semifinals against 11-0 St. Bernard's today at Westfield State University at 11 a.m.
Following two wins over the first six games of the season has been a four-game win streak for Lee. It began with a 27-7 road win against Turners Falls, the eventual top seed in the playoff bracket. Following was a 27-0 victory for the Wildcats over rival Monument Mountain at home.
"The week before Turners, we lost to Greylock in a very close game," Lee quarterback Cam Abderhalden said. "We knew our season was on the line at that point. We definitely picked it up against Turners, and then Monument is a huge rivalry and we knew they were going to come out and play. Then we carried our momentum on to the postseason."
After earning the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, Lee (6-4) held off third-seeded Franklin Tech (24-19) before a 13-0 victory over fourth-seeded McCann Tech earned Lee the Western Mass. championship.
The Wildcats are led offensively by senior captain Abderhalden. Running backs Ryan Ruef and Nick Castillo, in addition to receivers Michael Hurley and Matt Reynolds and tight end Patrick Finnegan, are the key contributing skill players.
St. Bernard's coach Tom Bingham said his squad will have to contain Abderhalden on Saturday.
"It seems like the offense runs through him, not only on the dive option but they run power from the gun," Bingham said. "They counter off of that power with him going the opposite direction. He's a really good athlete playing QB, he's a physical kid. He's the type of kid you love to have on your team."
Senior captains Matt Heppleston and Tyler Buratto are the key players on the offensive and defensive line for Lee. The offensive line has helped the running game come alive of late, while the defensive line, with Heppleston and Buratto at the defensive end positions plus Randy Pichardo and Mike Downer at the defensive tackles, has helped a defensive surge.
"After that kind of rough stretch we had at the beginning, we didn't really know where we were as a group," Buratto said. "(Heppleston) and I tried to take on a leadership role in helping the other linemen kind of come together. Everybody put the work in and it's paid off."
The defense has allowed seven or fewer points in three of its past four games and will be tasked with stopping a solid St. Bernard's attack.
"Their offense is very good," Lee coach Keith Thomson said of St. Bernard's. "They're big up front, they move well, they get off the ball. Their quarterback is extremely dynamic, he's a small guy, but he can fly. He's tough as nails, he extends plays with his legs, he has a big arm, his receivers will go up and get it. A lot of those 50/50 balls, they're coming up with. Their offense creates a lot of challenges for us."
Key offensive players for St. Bernard's include quarterback Cooper Bigelow, running backs Aaron Robichaud and James Xarras, receiver Zach Merchant and tight end Zach Bingham.
The winner of Saturday's game will head to Gillette Stadium on Dec. 5 for the Division VI championship game.